They celebrate life and walk for the cure

| 01 Jun 2012 | 02:01

WEST MILFORD — On the weekend of June 9-10, the West Milford High School track will undergo a transformation. Rather than the residents who walk or run the track on the weekend, the crowd will be made up of cancer survivors and caretakers, people who have lost loved ones to cancer and an amazing support group.

The Relay for Life of the Highlands is an overnight event. If you stop by you’ll see a colorful array of tents, lawn chairs, imaginative tee shirts, posters and signs, but mostly you’ll notice the people. There are teams of adults and teens who throughout the day and night will have representatives on the track. Funds are pledged to these walkers and every step they take is not so much a footfall on the high school track but on the all-important road to a cure.

The end recipient of this fund raising event is the American Cancer Society. The interim recipients are those who pledge donations or join in the event; they know they are doing something to help. But what brings people together at the Relay?

“The Relay story beginning is always someone’s connection to cancer – a friend, a family member or themselves,” said Joan Hopper, a multiple cancer survivor and the Relay’s communications director. “Then it goes to how we react to that cancer, either publicly or privately. Then, for most of us in Relay, it goes to that very first time we attended a Relay for Life. Many of us are just plain hooked to fight cancer or ease the pain of someone involved with cancer.”

According to Hopper, people who have suffered an immediate loss or are currently fighting cancer are highly motivated to act, to “do something” when they are feeling so helpless. Forming teams and raising funds soothes the soul.

Hopper told a story about a woman, not involved in the Relay physically, but surely there in her heart.

While getting a hair cut, Hopper was talking to the beautician about the Relay. When she was finished she paid her bill and left. Driving away she remembered that she had not tipped the young lady and returned to the shop. After tipping her she went back to her car but before she could pull away the stylist came running up to the car and handed Hopper all of her morning’s tips.

Jennifer Metcalf is a West Milford High School teacher and along with her daughter Sophia, she has been involved in the Relay for seven years. Directly affected by the illness when her husband was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and being further inspired by another survivor, Metcalf is an avid supporter of the event.

“Our first year at Relay really opened my eyes and made me realize that once you ‘relay’, you’ll always ‘relay’,” she said.

Being a teacher in the township high school gives Metcalf a direct line to teenagers.

“Students bring boundless energy to the field – and to the cause. Each year I’m amazed at the commitments that kids make – designing creative team shirts, participating in crazy contests, hosting fund raising events. I think we all look forward to seeing each other at the Relay year after year,” she said.

Metcalf admires the kids, some who have faced the “darkness of cancer” in their own families. “The kids rally to carry each other through the night – literally,” she said.

There’s room for everyone at the Relay. Just stopping by to cheer on the survivors when they join together to walk a lap is worth the time. It’s a victory lap and the smiling faces say it all. At night the Luminaria ceremony, beautiful in its simplicity and glowing with candles surrounding the track, allows time for peaceful and prayerful thoughts.

In all, the Relay for Life of the Highlands brings out the best in people.

It’s a time to help, to hope, to celebrate and memorialize. A time for the community to come together and join in the walk for a cure.